Jessica Anya Blau is the irrepressible author of three darkly comic novels set in her home state of California: The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (2008), Drinking Closer to Home (2011), and The Wonder Bread Summer (2013). She was educated at UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University and has lived in Toronto and Baltimore, but her sensibility remains distinctly Californian.
Her latest novel has attracted a lot of attention and received great acclaim for its depiction of a madcap California road trip set against the dark underbelly of the 80s cocaine culture. Influences from Alice in Wonderland abound. NPR selected the novel as a “Thrilling Summer Read,” Oprah.com’s book club picked the book as a “Thrilling Beach Read,” and CNN featured it as a “Best Beach Read.”
But here we mostly discuss Blau’s first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, which I reviewed on Sept. 1. [See my review, which follows this interview.]
You can view the trailer for The Summer of Naked Swim Parties here:
What inspired you to write about a young girl’s coming of age in 1970s Santa Barbara? Was it just a desire to fictionalize your own experiences or did a particular incident serve as the catalyst?
I was at Bread Loaf in Vermont [summer writer’s conference at Middlebury College] when Lynn Freed instructed my workshop group to write one great sentence. I wrote one sentence from a memory of my parents and their friends swimming naked at a party. It was a sentence in . . . I think it’s in the second chapter, when Jamie is watching Leon bounce naked on the diving board. After writing that one sentence, I was inspired to write the whole novel (The Summer of Naked Swim Parties).
Why did you choose to set The Summer of Naked Swim Parties in 1976 as opposed to the mid-80s, when you were a teen? Was there something that intrigued you about the 70s?
1976 was such a strange year. It was the American bicentennial and that idea seemed to be incorporated into everything. Car ads on TV had flags and talked about the bicentennial and if you went to Disneyland that year, which I did, there was a special bicentennial Electrical Parade. At the same time, there was a somewhat hippie-influenced counter-culture thing happening in Southern California (and elsewhere, I’m sure) that seemed thematically opposed to the jingoistic bicentennialism. I liked thinking about these two “movements” happening simultaneously. It created a sort of tension that mimicked the tension in the family with Renee, the older daughter, being far more conservative than her pot-smoking nudist parents.
The story turns darker in the second half. Was this always part of your plan or did you start out writing a breezy, comic take on a 1976 Santa Barbara family and the story moved in a more serious direction organically?
I wrote the story one chapter at a time without thinking about what would happen or how it would end. Then after I had a draft, I realized that I needed more tension. I tried about five different things before I landed on the event that happens in the middle of the book. That event (and I don’t want to give it away) felt weighty enough to change everyone’s life, and in changing their lives it changed the story. After I found that central idea, I did try to make the beginning even happier and lighter—I wanted Jamie, the protagonist, to feel like everything was almost perfect.
What kind of research did you do for this novel? If you weren’t a teen in the mid-70s, it’s hard to tell. Most of the period details and dialogue are right on the money. They brought back a lot of memories for me (Class of ’77).
Well I wasn’t that much younger than Jamie, so I do remember most of it. My research was through Googling—looking up TV schedules and top TV shows, and looking up Top 40 music.
I was somewhat surprised that Jamie wasn’t traumatized by her first sexual experience, which made me cringe and shake my head from start to finish. It was painful to read, even though, unfortunately, it rang so true. Is she more resilient than I thought or am I reading the scene wrong? Flip doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but he’s also not an exceptionally sensitive or caring guy.
That chapter was based on real life. That was pretty much how I lost my virginity (on the beach, and I vomited in medias res). It wasn’t a very graceful start. I wasn’t traumatized because I thought I was in love, I figured we’d get the hang of it eventually. And I was seeing Jamie as a version of myself in that scene.
On the writing craft side of things, how do you decide how much local detail and color to include? The use of locations such as East Beach and La Cumbre Plaza adds concrete specificity to the story, but I noticed that you didn’t use so many other seemingly obvious locations (State Street, Stearns Wharf, the mission, the wealthy enclave of Hope Ranch, UCSB and Isla Vista).
Hmm, this is an interesting question. I think I don’t deliberately use or not use anything. When I’m writing, I’m more in a dream state where I’m watching a movie in my head and writing it down as I see it. In revision (and I revise many, many, many times) I would be more inclined to add more specifics on setting. I didn’t feel obliged to include any particular place, so if Jamie didn’t go there, I didn’t put it in the book. I will point out that Stearns Wharf had burned down and was just a bunch of black ashy pilings sticking out of the water in the 70s.
Where do you write and what is your writing routine? Do you wait for inspiration or force yourself to sit down and write for a certain number of hours or words each day?
I write at my dining room table, where I’m interrupted constantly. Or I write in local cafes with my friends who are also writing. I try to write every day for at least a couple of hours. I try to do it without thinking about it, without asking myself whether I want to or not. It’s part of my day. I must confess that this summer I was on book tour and traveling a lot so I wrote in bursts and didn’t write for long periods of time. I just got back in town last night [Sept. 5] so I am going to try to resume my routine on Monday.
You attended UC Berkeley, where you majored in French. Did you minor in English or Creative Writing? It seems like many Cal grads are profoundly affected by their time there. What effect did going to college there have on you, both personally and artistically?
No, I never even took an English class at Berkeley. (Okay, I took one. We started with the novel Rebecca. I didn’t enjoy the book—although I might like it now—and dropped the class after about a week.) And I never took a writing class until I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins. I kept journals and wrote compulsively but I didn’t understand that I was a writer until later. And, yes, I don’t think anyone can go to Berkeley—the town or the school—without being affected by it. It’s an intense place with intense, expressive, opinionated, and aware people. I found it very liberating and expansive.
I’m always intrigued by the issue of culture shock. I would imagine that moving from the Bay Area to Toronto was quite a change. What was that like? What about when you moved to Baltimore to attend the MFA program at Johns Hopkins? Do you miss living in California?
Yes, moving from California to Toronto was shocking. The cold absolutely stunned me. The first year I was there it started snowing on Halloween and there was still snow on the ground on April 24, my wedding anniversary. I really liked the people, and I loved being in the city—it’s a great, stimulating place. In Canada, I felt very American—like I was always saying the wrong thing, asking for a bathroom when I should ask for a washroom, asking people personal questions before I knew them well enough to ask (by Canadian standards). When I moved to Baltimore to go Johns Hopkins, I felt like a wacky Californian stuck on the buttoned-up mid-Atlantic. I still feel like an oddball here, although this really is my home now.
Your latest novel, The Wonder Bread Summer, is also set in California. It starts in the Bay Area and involves a road trip to Southern California. Place seems important to you. Is there something about California that makes it an irresistible setting for a novel? Are you particularly attracted to the recent past or is it just a coincidence that The Summer of Naked Swim Parties takes place in 1976 and The Wonder Bread Summer takes place in 1983? Do you have any plans to set your next novel somewhere else or in the present?
I am attracted to California. It’s such a strange place full of so many incredible characters. Although, really, everywhere is strange and everyone is interesting to me. The Wonder Bread Summer had to be in the 80s to work—the story needed the complications and tensions of not being able to call someone on a cell phone and not being able to Google Map directions. And I really like 80s music—Prince, Morris Day, etc.—I listened to 80s music obsessively during the writing of the book. Many of the odd characters in Wonder Bread were inspired by people I met in Berkeley in the 80s (the porn producer in the wheelchair and the cocaine dealer in particular).
In the past 20 years you’ve been nominated for and won several awards for short fiction. Are you still writing short stories? Do you have plans to publish a collection? What are you currently working on?
I did write a short story recently. Actually, I wrote two. And I think I’m going to turn one into a novel. I like working on novels better because it gives me a job for a couple of years. Every time I finish a story, I have to find a new “job.”
What can be done to get more men to read novels by women? Is it as simple as reconsidering overly feminized cover art and/or titles? Or is it just a fact of life that men are interested in different types of books than female novelists are writing? I’m interested to know how this issue looks to a successful female writer.
I absolutely love that you are committed to reading books by women. And I think the fact that you let people know what you are doing is inspiring and will hopefully inspire more people, men and women, to read more books by women. My grandmother didn’t like reading books written by women because, according to her, there were “Too many feelings in here! I don’t want to read about how anyone feels!” Men can emote just as much as women, and women can write just as much action, or violence, or sex, as men.
I do think gender might have a lot to do with how you move through the world, but I don’t think it has much to do with how you create a fictional world. The Wonder Bread Summer has drug dealers, a chase, sex, a band . . . there are even some guns in there. And the biggest rave reviews I’ve gotten were from men (Nick Hornby in The Believer, Alan Cheuse on NPR, and Matthew Klam on CNN).
As far as the writing process goes, I have found that men who are writing are given a pass—they’re allowed to take the work seriously and not do this and that so that they have the time to write. And women who write, in general, have to carve out the time as if it’s a luxury, a treat, and not a right. This is a problem perpetuated by women as much as by men. Women need to take themselves seriously, take their work seriously, so that they understand that they deserve the time to write as much as any man does. Men seem to be much better at taking their work seriously and demanding the time and space to work.
The number of book-related blogs seems to have exploded in the last few years. What kind of impact are they having on publishing?
There are blog tours that publishers arrange now with the bloggers. So publishers are definitely taking the more popular bloggers seriously.
You’re in Paris at the moment. Are you on vacation, a book promotion tour, or a working trip?
I went to Paris to visit my brother who lives there (I returned last night). It was a vacation. I didn’t even take a computer. I just read, walked, hung out in parks, ate, rode a bike all over the city. It was fabulous. I only checked my email (on my iPhone) once a day—that alone made it a vacation!
You’ve been teaching fiction and poetry writing at Johns Hopkins for several years. What affect does that have on your sensibility and your writing? What have you learned from your students? I’m curious to know which writers brilliant undergraduate English majors favor these days.
I’m no longer teaching anywhere. I’m just writing. I did enjoy teaching at Hopkins. The students there were, as you said, brilliant. Many of them hadn’t read contemporary writers, so it was fun to turn them on to current stuff. And I learned a tremendous amount from them—about life, the world, their lives. At Hopkins the student population is from all around the world, so it’s a great place to find out about how people eat, live, work, and exist in families in other cultures.
One of my favorite writing exercises was to have the students describe their home first thing in the morning—what people are doing, what they have for breakfast, what things sound like. How and what people eat for breakfast can show you a lot about a culture. At the Monoprix near my brother’s apartment in Paris there were two complete aisles that were marked simply Breakfast. Parisians take their morning coffee, Banania, chocolat, and cereal very seriously.
Which writers inspired you? Favorite books? Any “guilty pleasures”? Who deserves more attention? What are you reading right now?
I’m inspired by all great writers. And I have too many favorite books to list. I love everything except fantasy and romance. Right now I’m reading two books: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe because I’ve never read it and I’m her direct descendent (I’m a Beecher through my maternal grandmother who hated reading books by women!). And I’m reading a Judy Blume YA book that I found in Paris because French YA is fairly easy for me to read and Judy Blume is pretty darn great. Oh, I’m also reading the [Robert] Coover story in last week’s New Yorker [“The Colonel’s Daughter”]. I read about half of it and meant to get back to it but haven’t yet because I’m loving Tiens-toi droite! [Stand Up Straight!] by Judy Blume. But, as soon as I send this, I’m going to dig out The New Yorker and finish reading that story.